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“A Hidden Triumph”
Sermon for Easter Sunday
Isaiah 65: 17-25; 1 Corinthians 15: 19-26; Luke 24: 1-12
In her masterful book on the Crucifixion, Fleming Rutledge identifies two main aspects of Christianity that make it unique. One is that Christians glorify a man who was humiliated, tortured and put to death in the most degrading way imaginable, pronounced not fit to live by the Roman state. The other is the doctrine of God’s justification of the ungodly – as Rutledge points out, every other religious, philosophical or ethical system assumes some kind of distinction between the “spiritual,” virtuous and godly people and the wicked, vicious and “unspiritual” people. Building on arguments by Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rutledge concludes that the basis of the Christian religion is essentially irreligious [i]– it goes against every human notion of what is spiritual, edifying, and uplifting.
For Jesus’ earliest followers, his death – and especially his manner of death – was nothing less than the death of all meaning. Any illusions they had about virtue being rewarded had been shattered in the cruelest way possible. When the women went to the tomb, all the bright promise Mary had sung about before her son’s birth had ended in a shameful disaster. The twelve disciples had headed for the hills, hiding out and lying low until the danger of being associated with a crucified criminal was past. What had happened to Jesus had destroyed their faith. Here is how Episcopal bishop Philip Rhinelander put it:
If ever mortal men found a real hero on this earth, those men were the disciples….Then think of the horrid shock and shame which overwhelmed them at the Cross. It was no splendid martyrdom for a great cause, no glorious conquest won at the cost of life; no epic to be sung and celebrated. No, the Cross was simply an utter overthrow, a speechless failure. It was all sordid, cruel, criminal, a gross injustice, an intolerable defeat of good by evil…[Jesus] their hero,…was numbered with the transgressors,…cast out with a curse upon him.[ii]
On this Easter Sunday, let us acknowledge that if Jesus had not been raised from the dead – which is the astounding claim we make – he would have been forgotten forever. Crucifixion was a very common punishment in the Roman Empire, the preferred method for eliminating the dregs of society. It was nothing like the hemlock given to Socrates or the guillotine administered to French aristocrats in the Revolution. Crucifixion was expressly designed to relegate its victims to the dust heap of human memory. If not for the resurrection, Jesus’ horrible and demeaning death would have effectively negated the Sermon on the Mount, his parables of the kingdom, his exemplary compassion, his acts of forgiveness and his graciousness toward outcasts. The legacy of his ministry would have been thrown away with his body. Because of the way he was discarded as a piece of human refuse, his teachings, if remembered at all, would have come to be seen as simply untrue, the ravings of a false prophet.
The disciples of Jesus had seen their dreams of glory dashed to the ground. In fact, the Cross put to death all dreams of human glory, virtue, honor and beauty. The Good Friday Cross, with its apparent triumph of cruelty, ugliness and sheer unholiness, stands as a reminder that we still live in a Good Friday world, where human lives are heedlessly thrown away every day, where human hopes routinely get stomped on.
One of the best books about American life to come out in the last few years is Matthew Desmond‘s “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” Desmond spent several years living in the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to uncover stories of families, mostly led by single mothers, bouncing between homelessness and squalid, unsafe housing while their landlords got richer and richer. (There is apparently more money to be made renting to the poor than renting or selling to the well-off.) The most poignant story is that of Arleen, who spends most of her time and money looking for suitable housing for herself and her two school-age sons – in her community, people are so poor that some of them donate plasma just to have enough money to attend a family member’s funeral. Arleen gets evicted if she gets behind on the rent, but also if one of her children misbehaves at school or if a friend of hers creates a minor disturbance in the building – any excuse will do. After losing a place she loved only a week after moving in, Arleen says, “Why is it like I got a curse on me? I can’t win for losing. No matter how hard I try.”[iii]
In this Good Friday world, what shall we say to someone like Arleen? What shall we say to the people of Flint, Michigan, whose children have been poisoned by lead in the water? What shall we say to the victims of terrorist attacks and hate crimes? What shall we say to Monica and Pete, a homeless couple whose story I told two weeks ago, who have discovered that they are simply invisible to the people who go by on the DC streets? What shall we say in response to all the forces, whether individuals or institutions, who treat human lives as expendable?
What, indeed, shall we say? If the Christian faith has nothing to say to poor people like Arleen, or to damaged children, or the victims of suicide bombers or school shootings -- or for that matter, to all those who have been devastated by the untimely death of those they love most -- then we truly have nothing to say. We are, as Paul says, “of all people most to be pitied,” for we are simply peddling a delusion.
But there is something we can say. The resurrection of Jesus was, and is, God’s resounding “no” to all the annihilating forces that conspired to execute an innocent man. It is God’s “no” to the forces of despair and hopelessness that made the disciples run and hide, that made the women go to the tomb with such heavy hearts. It is God’s “no” to the forces of death that conspire against full human life and thriving. The resurrection is about God overcoming death with life.
The resurrection of Jesus, the crucified one who threw in his lot with the despised and rejected of the earth, was God’s vindication of Jesus. In this vindication, God has let all innocent sufferers know that they are not forgotten. In the resurrection of Jesus -- the one who was “evicted” from the world, “cast out with a curse upon him” – God has spoken for the lost, the abandoned, the rejected, the ones who “can’t win for losing.” The cross represents the struggle of divine love against heedless, self-centered, resistant humankind, and the resurrection is the victory of that love. The triumph of divine love is hidden in the unspeakable horror of the cross. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the first installment on a promise God has made to all humanity.
Let’s think again about our text from Isaiah. The prophet paints a picture of heaven and earth rejoicing, because in God’s new creation there will be no more infant mortality, no more old people living out their days in pain and abandonment, no more war, no more exploitation; no more people losing their homes because they are too impoverished to fight for themselves, no more children who miss school for weeks out of every year because their families are always moving. In God’s fully redeemed world, the force of life will overcome the forces of death.
Writing to his family from a Nazi prison in 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this: “The liberating thing about Good Friday and Easter is that one’s thoughts are swept far beyond one’s own personal fate to the ultimate meaning of all life and suffering, and of whatever occurs, such that one is seized by a great hope.”[iv] And he affirmed his sustaining conviction that “God can and will bring good out of …even the greatest evil. “A faith such as this,” he said, “should allay all our fears of the future.”[v]
Many years ago I was privileged to hear Gordon Cosby, the founder of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., talk about his own life. He described his experience as a World War II chaplain, called to minister to those who faced the very real possibility of death in combat. Cosby discovered, to his surprise and dismay, that the soldiers who self-identified as Christian seemed no better equipped to deal with the extreme conditions and existential questions raised by war than the other soldiers. Cosby’s later work with Church of the Savior grew in part out of this experience, the recognition that the Christian faith must be able to offer a real and lasting hope to people, hope that comes from beyond us and beyond the grave, hope that will give us what we need to endure the dangers, hardships and losses of our lives.
The Easter message is that God has overcome the obstacles to hope. Our hope is in Jesus Christ, the one who has gone to the cross and grave for us, and has risen again so that “all [may] be made alive in [him].” That is the good news of Easter, the news we announce today. He is risen; and he lives, for you and for me and for the sake of the world. Alleluia! Amen.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
April 21, 2019
[i] The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans, 2015).
[ii] Quoted in Rutledge, The Crucifixion, 70-71.
[iii] New York: Crown Publishers, 2016, 288.
[iv] Dietrich Bohoeffer, Meditations on the Cross, 75.
[v] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, The Enlarged Edition, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Simon & Schuster Touchstone, 1997), 11.